The great criticism of Mitt Romney, from both sides of the aisle, has always been that he doesn't stand for anything. He's a flip-flopper, they say, a lightweight, a cardboard opportunist who'll say anything to get elected.
The critics couldn't be more wrong. Mitt Romney is no tissue-paper man. He's closer to being a revolutionary, a backward-world version of Che or Trotsky, with tweezed nostrils instead of a beard, a half-Windsor instead of a leather jerkin. His legendary flip-flops aren't the lies of a bumbling opportunist – they're the confident prevarications of a man untroubled by misleading the nonbeliever in pursuit of a single, all-consuming goal. Romney has a vision, and he's trying for something big: We've just been too slow to sort out what it is, just as we've been slow to grasp the roots of the radical economic changes that have swept the country in the last generation.
The incredible untold story of the 2012 election so far is that Romney's run has been a shimmering pearl of perfect political hypocrisy, which he's somehow managed to keep hidden, even with thousands of cameras following his every move. And the drama of this rhetorical high-wire act was ratcheted up even further when Romney chose his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – like himself, a self-righteously anal, thin-lipped, Whitest Kids U Know penny pincher who'd be honored to tell Oliver Twist there's no more soup left. By selecting Ryan, Romney, the hard-charging, chameleonic champion of a disgraced-yet-defiant Wall Street, officially succeeded in moving the battle lines in the 2012 presidential race.
Like John McCain four years before, Romney desperately needed a vice-presidential pick that would change the game. But where McCain bet on a combustive mix of clueless novelty and suburban sexual tension named Sarah Palin, Romney bet on an idea. He said as much when he unveiled his choice of Ryan, the author of a hair-raising budget-cutting plan best known for its willingness to slash the sacred cows of Medicare and Medicaid. "Paul Ryan has become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party," Romney told frenzied Republican supporters in Norfolk, Virginia, standing before the reliably jingoistic backdrop of a floating warship. "He understands the fiscal challenges facing America: our exploding deficits and crushing debt."
Debt, debt, debt. If the Republican Party had a James Carville, this is what he would have said to win Mitt over, in whatever late-night war room session led to the Ryan pick: "It's the debt, stupid." This is the way to defeat Barack Obama: to recast the race as a jeremiad against debt, something just about everybody who's ever gotten a bill in the mail hates on a primal level.
Last May, in a much-touted speech in Iowa, Romney used language that was literally inflammatory to describe America's federal borrowing. "A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation," he declared. "Every day we fail to act, that fire gets closer to the homes and children we love." Our collective debt is no ordinary problem: According to Mitt, it's going to burn our children alive.
And this is where we get to the hypocrisy at the heart of Mitt Romney. Everyone knows that he is fantastically rich, having scored great success, the legend goes, as a "turnaround specialist," a shrewd financial operator who revived moribund companies as a high-priced consultant for a storied Wall Street private equity firm. But what most voters don't know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back. This is the plain, stark reality that has somehow eluded America's top political journalists for two consecutive presidential campaigns: Mitt Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that other people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.
By making debt the centerpiece of his campaign, Romney was making a calculated bluff of historic dimensions – placing a massive all-in bet on the rank incompetence of the American press corps. The result has been a brilliant comedy: A man makes a $250 million fortune loading up companies with debt and then extracting million-dollar fees from those same companies, in exchange for the generous service of telling them who needs to be fired in order to finance the debt payments he saddled them with in the first place. That same man then runs for president riding an image of children roasting on flames of debt, choosing as his running mate perhaps the only politician in America more pompous and self-righteous on the subject of the evils of borrowed money than the candidate himself. If Romney pulls off this whopper, you'll have to tip your hat to him: No one in history has ever successfully run for president riding this big of a lie. It's almost enough to make you think he really is qualified for the White House.
The unlikeliness of Romney's gambit isn't simply a reflection of his own artlessly unapologetic mindset – it stands as an emblem for the resiliency of the entire sociopathic Wall Street set he represents. Four years ago, the Mitt Romneys of the world nearly destroyed the global economy with their greed, shortsightedness and – most notably – wildly irresponsible use of debt in pursuit of personal profit. The sight was so disgusting that people everywhere were ready to drop an H-bomb on Lower Manhattan and bayonet the survivors. But today that same insane greed ethos, that same belief in the lunatic pursuit of instant borrowed millions – it's dusted itself off, it's had a shave and a shoeshine, and it's back out there running for president.
Mitt Romney, it turns out, is the perfect frontman for Wall Street's greed revolution. He's not a two-bit, shifty-eyed huckster like Lloyd Blankfein. He's not a sighing, eye-rolling, arrogant jerkwad like Jamie Dimon. But Mitt believes the same things those guys believe: He's been right with them on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let's-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let's-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDOs and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of "creative destruction," and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America's rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.
Mitt Romney – a man whose own father built cars and nurtured communities, and was one of the old-school industrial anachronisms pushed aside by the new generation's wealth grab – has emerged now to sell this make-nothing, take-everything, screw-everyone ethos to the world. He's Gordon Gekko, but a new and improved version, with better PR – and a bigger goal. A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we'll all end up paying for the acquisition.
Willard "Mitt" Romney's background in many ways suggests a man who was born to be president – disgustingly rich from birth, raised in prep schools, no early exposure to minorities outside of maids, a powerful daddy to clean up his missteps, and timely exemptions from military service. In Romney's bio there are some eerie early-life similarities to other recent presidential figures. (Is America really ready for another Republican president who was a prep-school cheerleader?) And like other great presidential double-talkers such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Romney has shown particular aptitude in the area of telling multiple factual versions of his own life story.
"I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and be representing our country there," he claimed years after the war. To a different audience, he said, "I was not planning on signing up for the military. It was not my desire to go off and serve in Vietnam."
Like John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, men whose way into power was smoothed by celebrity fathers but who rebelled against their parental legacy as mature politicians, Mitt Romney's career has been both a tribute to and a repudiation of his famous father. George Romney in the 1950s became CEO of American Motors Corp., made a modest fortune betting on energy efficiency in an age of gas guzzlers and ended up serving as governor of the state of Michigan only two generations removed from the Romney clan's tradition of polygamy. For Mitt, who grew up worshipping his tall, craggily handsome, politically moderate father, life was less rocky: Cranbrook prep school in suburban Detroit, followed by Stanford in the Sixties, a missionary term in which he spent two and a half years trying (as he said) to persuade the French to "give up your wine," and Harvard Business School in the Seventies. Then, faced with making a career choice, Mitt chose an odd one: Already married and a father of two, he left Harvard and eschewed both politics and the law to enter the at-the-time unsexy world of financial consulting.
"When you get out of a place like Harvard, you can do anything – at least in the old days you could," says a prominent corporate lawyer on Wall Street who is familiar with Romney's career. "But he comes out, he not only has a Harvard Business School degree, he's got a national pedigree with his name. He could have done anything – but what does he do? He says, 'I'm going to spend my life loading up distressed companies with debt.' "
Romney started off at the Boston Consulting Group, where he showed an aptitude for crunching numbers and glad-handing clients. Then, in 1977, he joined a young entrepreneur named Bill Bain at a firm called Bain & Company, where he worked for six years before being handed the reins of a new firm-within-a-firm called Bain Capital.
In Romney's version of the tale, Bain Capital – which evolved into what is today known as a private equity firm – specialized in turning around moribund companies (Romney even wrote a book called Turnaround that complements his other nauseatingly self-complimentary book, No Apology) and helped create the Staples office-supply chain. On the campaign trail, Romney relentlessly trades on his own self-perpetuated reputation as a kind of altruistic rescuer of failing enterprises, never missing an opportunity to use the word "help" or "helped" in his description of what he and Bain did for companies. He might, for instance, describe himself as having been "deeply involved in helping other businesses" or say he "helped create tens of thousands of jobs."
The reality is that toward the middle of his career at Bain, Romney made a fateful strategic decision: He moved away from creating companies like Staples through venture capital schemes, and toward a business model that involved borrowing huge sums of money to take over existing firms, then extracting value from them by force. He decided, as he later put it, that "there's a lot greater risk in a startup than there is in acquiring an existing company." In the Eighties, when Romney made this move, this form of financial piracy became known as a leveraged buyout, and it achieved iconic status thanks to Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Gekko's business strategy was essentially identical to the Romney–Bain model, only Gekko called himself a "liberator" of companies instead of a "helper."
Here's how Romney would go about "liberating" a company: A private equity firm like Bain typically seeks out floundering businesses with good cash flows. It then puts down a relatively small amount of its own money and runs to a big bank like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup for the rest of the financing. (Most leveraged buyouts are financed with 60 to 90 percent borrowed cash.) The takeover firm then uses that borrowed money to buy a controlling stake in the target company, either with or without its consent. When an LBO is done without the consent of the target, it's called a hostile takeover; such thrilling acts of corporate piracy were made legend in the Eighties, most notably the 1988 attack by notorious corporate raiders Kohlberg Kravis Roberts against RJR Nabisco, a deal memorialized in the book Barbarians at the Gate.
Romney and Bain avoided the hostile approach, preferring to secure the cooperation of their takeover targets by buying off a company's management with lucrative bonuses. Once management is on board, the rest is just math. So if the target company is worth $500 million, Bain might put down $20 million of its own cash, then borrow $350 million from an investment bank to take over a controlling stake.